When I started playing tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), back in 2001, the only way I experienced TTRPGs was meeting with friends or strangers, ideally in a room with a table and some chairs, but not necessarily. This, because in most cases playing a TTRPG is no different than having a conversation with some math rocks (aka “dice”) intervening every once in a while—and having a conversation is something you can do almost everywhere.
For years I always imagined and explained the TTRPG experience the same way: friends around a table, writing on character sheets with pencils and rolling dice.
But then both a social uprising in my country and a global pandemic hit the world. And gathering with friends in the same place became an impossibility, so we had to choose. Either we stopped playing altogether or we moved our game to the digital space. We did and, since last year, I’ve been running and playing lots of games online.
Now that the pandemic seems under control, the possibility of gathering together again in the same place seems closer and closer to a reality, so I have to wonder what I will do now. Will I move the games back to the offline world or will I keep them online? Would I start new games offline if I could, or would I prefer to keep playing online? In spite of what I may have thought once, the answers to these questions are not as easy or clear cut as they once were.
Some Much Needed Context
If I had had to describe my gaming profile before the pandemic, I would have said that I’m 90% analog and 10% digital. I have tons of TTRPGs and board games, but a tiny collection of digital games, most of which I haven’t even played!
At some point I would’ve said this was an aesthetic choice, but in reality it had everything to do with my socioeconomic situation while growing up. My parents and grandparents had no money they could spend buying consoles or a computer, so I never got accustomed to playing games that way when I was a kid.
During my puberty and adolescence I tried to remedy that, and I spent quite some money playing in internet cafes, and I bothered my friends while visiting so they would lend me their consoles or computers for a while.
In spite of my efforts, I still think that I don’t have more than a very superficial knowledge of digital games.
I think this explains very well my resistance to move to the online space, even in the face of a social uprising and then a global pandemic. I was less than comfortable with the idea of playing my beloved TTRPGs digitally, since I thought that most of what made a TTRPG a TTRPG would be lost without the face-to-face, offline, good old human interaction.
I wasn’t wrong, but I’m not sure I was right either.
Playing TTRPGs Offline: Pros
The main pro of playing offline is having the opportunity to sit with your friends around a table and look at their faces while you all together tell stories of their characters in your fictional world.
I think that part of that experience is truly irreplaceable. It also serves to unplug from the world, if that’s what you’re looking for. A friend of mine refuses to play online because for him the main attraction of TTRPGs is gathering with a group of friends outside of working hours and playing pretend a few hours a week—and I totally understand him.
Other attractions of offline play include the tactile part, as it’s conducive to do things such as taking notes by longhand, moving miniatures on a battlemap, and even interacting with props or handouts, which function as fictional world mementos.
Playing TTRPGs Offline: Cons
Maybe the main con of playing offline is that, even if all your friends live more or less in the same place (the same city), it’s still hard to meet once a week. People have other things to do, and I truly understand the feeling of not wanting to go out and maybe lose 1-2 hours of your life just by moving from your home to the game place.
This fact severely limits the capacity of playing often and, thus, being able to develop the long-form narrative that is so suitable for TTRPGs.
The other cons that I find when thinking about offline play have to do with the cost of having maps, miniatures, and props. These are a big part of the attraction of playing offline, so for me they aren’t optional and, as a result, I used to spend a pretty penny on those accessories. I don’t regret doing so, but it can make a difference if you don’t want to or can’t spend that money.
Playing TTRPGs Online: Pros
The main pro for me of online playing is availability. You can basically play at any time you want, as long as you have a computer and a decent internet connection.
In reality it feels more like you can more or less keep a schedule and play at least once a week with the same group because everybody can be as comfortable as they want while playing from home.
Another great pro is that systems like D&D have lots of virtual table tools to help you play. Online character sheets such as the one offered by D&D Beyond allow you to have all the information about your character in one place, it updates automatically when you level up, and helps you keep track of all the little details that you may miss on a printed character sheet.
Finally, another great pro is that all of the other minutiae associated with TTRPGs, such as the aforementioned miniatures, props, and handouts, can be easily replicated digitally for basically free. And sometimes they look even better than a physical object! (By “better” I mean closer to what you imagined them to look like in the fictional world).
Playing TTRPGs Online: Cons
The first con that comes to mind when thinking about playing online is that the opportunity for distraction is too damn high! Even if people don’t intend to, having at your disposal all of the tools that you use daily to entertain yourself alongside the platform you’re using to play makes it so that people sometimes are easily distracted and miss a bit or two while playing. In isolation this is not bothersome, but it can become quite obnoxious if you have to ask people to stop looking at other websites or their phone constantly.
Another con of online play is that you’re depending on external factors to develop your game, such as internet connection, PCs’ processing capabilities, and even a good microphone or camera. People who are not interested in streaming tend to have only the most basic stuff, which can become problematic if their streaming quality is poor enough to become unintelligible.
To be honest, I’m still on the fence when it comes to offline play. There’s a lot that I miss—especially my friend who I used to see at least twice a month, if not more—but both the technical issues I foresee, as well as the scheduling ones, really dissuade me from doing so.
Considering this, I’ll probably try to keep on playing online for the foreseeable future, adding maybe an offline game here and there to try to fall in love with it again.
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